PODCAST: How Annuities Could Work for You

No doubt, investing in annuities can be a tough call for the active investor. But there comes a time when relinquishing some control in exchange for reliable income can be a wise move. Also: remembering the biggest financial fraud in history.

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David Muhlbaum: Someone once called annuities the broccoli of retirement planning. Well, okay. But the reliable income they provide is nothing to turn your nose up at. We'll discuss how to make them a tasty dish for your income meal. Also, Bernie Madoff died this month, and we have a few thoughts. All coming up on this episode of Your Money's Worth. Stick around.

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David Muhlbaum: Welcome to Your Money's Worth. I'm Kiplinger.com senior editor David Muhlbaum, joined by my cohost, senior editor Sandy Block. How are you doing Sandy?

Sandy Block: I'm good David.

David Muhlbaum: Well, good. You know who died since we last got together to record, right? Bernie Madoff. The guy they should rename Ponzi schemes for.

Sandy Block: Right. He died in prison. Apparently, he tried to get a pardon from Donald Trump late last year, but no. And he's had kidney disease for some time, and I think it was always expected that he would die in prison because his prison sentence was very, very long.

David Muhlbaum: Yes, like 150 years or something like that.

Sandy Block: Yes. Something like that.

David Muhlbaum: I don't think a whole lot of tears were shed for Mr. Madoff, but the situation, it does raise my mind a few questions about how we do justice. I mean, in particular, why we imprison people. One reason for locking people up is if they pose a threat to others. And others for rehabilitation, help them find a non-criminal trade. And then another is raw punishment, retribution. I think only one of those applied to Bernie Madoff.

Sandy Block: Well, I think a lot of people would say the retribution was totally justified, but are you suggesting that Bernie Madoff got a bad deal?

David Muhlbaum: Not necessarily. I mean, yes, as financial fraud goes, this was as big as it gets, right? He took a lot of money from a lot of influential people. But his fraud, it came out right around the time when a lot of other things were blowing up in the financial world—this was 2008, 2009?

Sandy Block: Yup.

David Muhlbaum: And so I think some of the generalized anger at Wall Street, to use the oversimplification of the time, it got piled on Bernie Madoff.

Sandy Block: Yes. Something about the art of his con, how he promised solid, but not exceptional returns. How instead of selling himself hard, he didn't look like what you picture a scam artist. He was reluctant to take your money, which increased the applied trust and the amount of money people were willing to give him. You could argue now maybe they should have known better. And I'm sure they asked themselves that later too.

David Muhlbaum: Yes. They're probably pretty tired of us asking as well.

Sandy Block: Yes. Right, right. Blaming the victims.

David Muhlbaum: Right. Well, I mean, both back when he was sentenced and even today, we're wondering, are there others out there? I mean, other scammers, that is. A lot of attention was paid to, where was the Securities Exchange Commission when the Madoff scam broke? But in truth, the SEC had been busting Ponzi schemes before Madoff and they're still doing it today. I looked up one... Here's one from April 6th. SEC Obtains Emergency Asset Freeze; Charges Actor with Operating a $690 Million Ponzi Scheme. That's the headline. There's some C-list actor named Zach Avery. $690 million?

Sandy Block: Right, because they wouldn't do it if it didn't work. One of my frustrations I covered... as you know, I covered the SEC a while ago, and so these things keep coming up again. And what was always so frustrating is even when the SEC did get these guys, by the time they tracked them down, the money was gone. I've rarely remembered anybody getting very much of their money back in these schemes because usually the people had spent all the money or send it overseas or something like that. But let's put some actionable personal finance guidance out on our little reminiscence here.

This is what the SEC says to watch out for, promises of high returns with little or no risk. And I think that was one of Bernie's genius skills was that his returns weren't sky-high, but returns never went down. People never lost money. And that's a hallmark of a Ponzi scheme. Every investment has risk and the potential for high returns usually comes with high risks. And so what we always say, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably already is.

Another thing to watch out for is unlicensed or unregistered sellers. Most Ponzi schemes involve individuals or firms that are not licensed or registered. Even if an investment professional comes across as likable or trustworthy or knows all your friends, use the free search tool on investor.gov to check whether the person is licensed and registered. That's at least an initial, it doesn't guarantee, but at least it's a screen.

David Muhlbaum: And it's so easy. It's so easy.

Sandy Block: It's on the internet. You can just go to the internet, you can Google somebody. This would have helped with Bernie, but-

David Muhlbaum: No, Bernie had a tremendous cover story because he was operating a 100% legitimate business on the side, or not on the side—that was his main business.

Sandy Block: But I don't think Zach Avery did. So that's at least-

David Muhlbaum: Yes, right.

Sandy Block: I don't think Zach Avery had a brokerage shop. And the other thing, and this goes back to Bernie, as I mentioned earlier: overly consistent returns. Investment values fluctuate over time. So you really need to be skeptical of an investment that generates steady positive returns regardless of market conditions. If you are earning 8% a year in perpetuity, something is a little wrong.

David Muhlbaum: Okay. I may be asking a little much of your knowledge of the history of the SEC, but do you think they added that last one as a result of Madoff?

Sandy Block: I think they probably did because I think that, like I said, Madoff was a Ponzi scheme, but it was a Ponzi scheme with nuance. He did not promise people the world. Well, one thing I ran across just in revisiting all this is, you know, what he was running, kind of look like a hedge fund, even though they weren't as popular then, but he didn't charge any fees. And that right there should have been a red flag. It's like, dude, how are you making your money? If you're not charging any fees, what are you doing here to compensate yourself? This isn't a charity, although he did rip off some charities. But yes. I don't know for sure. I don't remember overly consistent returns being a red flag back in the old days, but now it sure is.

David Muhlbaum: Yea. I think in part, because Ponzi schemes tended to—and maybe to some extent still do—they blow up pretty quick. Like, how long the Madoff scam ran was unusual as well.

Sandy Block: And I think it was because of his ability to attract large amounts of money. He was able to attract so much money that he was able to maintain by constantly... That's the thing with Ponzi schemes, right? You always have to get new investors because you always have to have new money coming in to pay out the old people. And he had a really, because of his you know, patina of legitimacy, he was able to keep on attracting real people. And the other thing he did that I see time and time again with SEC enforcement actions is called affinity fraud. And that's basically luring in people within your group and every ethnic religious denomination has an example of this. You trust people who are like you, and maybe that's not always a good idea.

David Muhlbaum: I think we come back to the line trust but verify. When we return for our main segment, we'll talk about annuities, a financial product that sometimes gets a bad rap, but can be a key tool for keeping income coming in retirement.

David Muhlbaum: Welcome back to Your Money's Worth. Today, we're going to talk about annuities, which is a topic that my co-host Sandy Block knows backwards and forwards. So she's going to be our guest, our subject matter expert today. Also joining us is Catherine Siskos, the managing editor of Kiplinger's Retirement Report, because frankly, annuities are usually of most interest to people planning for or in retirement. Though not always; we'll touch on a notable exception too.

David Muhlbaum: A couple of weeks ago, we discussed Bitcoin here and while annuities are pretty much the polar opposite of Bitcoin when it comes to, well, what Sandy?

Sandy Block: Risk!

David Muhlbaum: Well, they also have some similarities. Mostly that they can get really complicated. So to keep things as simple as possible, I'm going to try the journalism who, where, what approach, that I believe served us well with Bitcoin. So Cathy, please, WHAT is an annuity?

Catherine Siskos: It's essentially an insurance contract where you can pay a lump sum or a series of payments, and in exchange, you get a guaranteed income for the rest of your life.

David Muhlbaum: And who would want to do that?

Catherine Siskos: Retirees who typically would like to have a guaranteed income for the rest of their life. Maybe their savings are running a little bit short with a you know a 4% withdrawal rate. And so this is another way to supplement that. It's essentially a way to create your own pension really.

David Muhlbaum: In theory, all of us already have one of those with Social Security.

Catherine Siskos: Sure. But Social Security is not a whole heck of a lot of money. And for most people, it really won't be enough to live on.

Sandy Block: David, what Catherine is talking about is a product that we've actually written quite a lot about. And fairly, you know, think might work for a lot of people. And those are immediate annuities. Basically, you give the insurance company a check for a lump sum of money, and in exchange, they say, we will send you a check for either the rest of your life, you and your spouse's life, or in some cases, just a set period, maybe 20 years or something like that. And I think these products have become more appealing recently for a couple of reasons. One, as Catherine said, it is a way for people who worry that they haven't saved enough for retirement to at least guarantee that they can cover their expenses for the rest of their lives. Maybe they won't make a lot of money, maybe they won't leave anything to their children, but they do have the security of knowing that they won't outlive their savings if they take out 4% a year forever.

The other reason I think they're appealing is because interest rates are so low and some fee-only planners who have historically not been fans of annuities have sort of come around because they think you could use an immediate annuity as sort of the bond portion of your retirement savings portfolio, and possibly get an equivalently higher yield than you would get putting your money say in a 30-year treasury or a 10-year treasury or something like that.

David Muhlbaum: So we've discussed annuities as a potential bond or CD substitute, a low-risk source of income, but let's talk a bit more about a particular kind of risk, principal risk. The risk of everything going south, and you don't get your payouts anymore because the investment is gone, like Bernie Madoff gone. For bonds, we have rating companies to look at, and for CDs, the FDIC is literally standing behind your money, up to a point. But who's behind the annuity? An insurance company? That's it?

Sandy Block: You're right that you're basically relying on the insurance company to be around as long as you will be, and sometimes that could be 30 or more years. And while this industry doesn't provide the same level of security as the FDIC, it is regulated by the states. So there are some requirements. And in reality, there have been very, very few cases in which insurance companies were not able to make good on their promises with respect to immediate annuities. And I think that's because they do a good job of estimating average life expectancy. Remember they only have to pay out for as long as you live, so they have very smart people who calculate how many buyers will die in the next 10, 15 years versus those who will live for 40 years. They can do a pretty good job of estimating that and that reduces the chance that they'll go under.

Before you ever buy one of these, you should investigate; see if they've had any financial problems. They are rated by rating agencies and you should look for the highest-rated insurance company before you give it your money. So it's not without risk. But I would say the likelihood that the insurance company will go under is fairly low.

David Muhlbaum: That's an interesting point about how good the insurance companies are at life expectancy and all that fun and morbid actuarial stuff. But while they may know the averages really well, the individual who's buying an annuity, they know themselves best of all. And by that, I mean, they know their family history, their health, their behaviors, what do you look like in the mirror, or when you turn the front camera on? And so, should that be a factor for the annuity shopper? How long do you think you're going to live and collect that money?

Catherine Siskos: Sure. You should take into account your own medical family history, your life expectancy, because, for one thing, you may not get payments very long, all that money that you put in, you're not going to get back if you don't live for a significantly long period of time. So that does factor into the equation.

David Muhlbaum: But even though annuities are an insurance product, the situation is kind of the opposite of some forms of life insurance. You're not going to need a medical exam or anything like that.

Sandy Block: You don't have to get a medical exam to buy an immediate annuity.

David Muhlbaum: Because they don't care. If you die, BOOM, they keep the money.

Sandy Block: That's right. They would prefer that you're not healthy. All they look at is your age, the amount of money that you have to invest, and your gender. And that's what we like about immediate annuities because they're not that complicated. You can go to a website such as immediateannuities.com, put in your age, your gender and what state you're in, and how much money you have to invest, and you'll get a pretty good idea. And this changes based on interest rates, which you can get a pretty good idea of how much you'll get per month. And it doesn't matter your health or anything like that. It's just a pure mathematical problem for them.

David Muhlbaum: Okay. So that simplicity can be appealing in many ways, but I imagine it can also be off-putting. I'm thinking about the active investors that we assume we have in our audience, they own mutual funds, stocks, bonds, maybe even more esoteric stuff, and they manage them fairly closely. They pay attention. And I can imagine one of the sticking points of annuities for this crowd is the lack of control. You basically hand over your money in exchange for a check, that's the deal. But an annuity might still make sense for them. So what's the argument for those people? How do you get them to make that mental shift?

Sandy Block: It is a tough mental shift and it's why really only a very small percentage of people invest in an immediate annuity because you are giving up a lump sum of money that you usually can't get back. But the argument even for an active investor is this: if you annuitize, just maybe 20% of your portfolio, enough to cover your expenses, you can afford to be a lot more aggressive with the rest of your portfolio, because you can suffer losses. You could invest more in stocks than you would, say if you invested that section of your portfolio in the bond market because if both markets go belly up, you're still getting paid every month.

Sandy Block: So you could actually be a little more aggressive with the rest of your portfolio—maybe buy some Bitcoin even—than you would if you were investing 100% of your portfolio for yourself. You're basically outsourcing a section of your portfolio to cover the bills. There's an argument to be made for that. But I also agree. A lot of people are very uncomfortable giving even 20%, 10% of their money away that they can never get back and that they don't have control of.

David Muhlbaum: Another way annuities can behave differently from mutual funds and other investments people might've been using as they save for retirement is taxation. The payments you get from your annuity, they're taxed as ordinary income, and the rate for that is higher than dividends or capital gains, for example, plus, since we're usually talking about retirement here, we have the added twist of tax-deferred accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs, that kind of thing. Catherine, I understand one approach when buying an annuity is to buy it inside your IRA. Now, how does that work?

Catherine Siskos: The one argument that I've heard that it does help to put it in IRAs, if you're going to use a portion of your retirement savings to pay for that annuity, to essentially produce that lump sum, at least you don't have to take the money out in order to buy the annuity. So that's one reason to do it.

David Muhlbaum: Yes, because otherwise you'd have two taxable events and that wouldn't help. Since we've brought up the question of investing in annuities from within a retirement savings account, we should address another complication that comes up with getting income from one of these, from an annuity, or frankly, from getting an income, period, in retirement, the required minimum distribution, the RMD. So quickly, what's an RMD? If you've saved money in a conventional IRA or 401(k) or a similar tax-deferred account, when you hit age 72, the government says you've got to take some of it out. Whether you want to or not. RMDs are a big deal for a lot of people. But Sandy, you say there's a type of annuity that can lessen that hit?

Sandy Block: There is a kind of an interesting workaround in another type of annuity that we've written a lot about. And that's called a deferred annuity. This is when you give an insurance company a much smaller amount of money, but you don't start getting payouts until you reach a certain age, usually in your 80s. And we call these longevity annuities sometimes because basically, you're buying longevity insurance. If you die before the annuity starts paying out, you get nothing. But on the other hand, if you live long enough, you're guaranteed to have a paycheck for the rest of your life at a time when a lot of people do worry about running out of money. And within these products, there is another sort of wrinkle called a QLAC, Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract. And in this case, you take money out of an IRA or a 401(k) up to 25% or up to 130,000, whichever is less.

Sandy Block: You put it in this deferred annuity and you don't have to start taking required minimum distributions until you start taking money out of the annuity, which usually isn't until your 80s. So you don't avoid RMDs all together, but you get to put them off. You don't have to start taking them at 72. And we're seeing more and more people continuing to work in their 70s. And if you have to take RMDs while you're still working, the tax can be quite high. So kicking the can down the road within a deferred annuity, kind of makes some sense.

David Muhlbaum: In the intro, I mentioned that annuities come up in a context that has nothing to do with retirement income. It's not a common scenario, but it's one that people pay a lot of attention to. I'm talking about the lottery. If you win the lottery really big, like really big, you get a choice. Tell us about the choice our lucky winner has, Sandy!

Sandy Block: You have a choice of taking a lump sum or an annuity for the rest of your life. And the lump sum is basically going to be discounted to represent what the amount you would get if you took the annuity over the rest of your life and you live the average life expectancy. Most people take the lump sum and a whole lot of them blow it because they like money upfront versus counting on getting a check for the rest of their lives. What's interesting is what happens.

Sandy Block: I'm kind of fascinated by stories about people who win the big lottery. What people who take the annuity sometimes do is run up big debts, get in over their heads, and they end up selling off the annuity to someone else for a lower amount in exchange for a lump sum. So I guess the takeaway there, is people don't manage their lottery winnings very well, but it is an interesting, again, an interesting math problem. Do you take the money now with the expectation that you can invest it and earn more than an annuity would pay you out every year for the rest of your life? Or do you take the annuity and then just know that you will never run out of money?

David Muhlbaum: Well, that's the basic core decision, but of course the parameters are pretty different when you've just won big in the lottery versus trying to make a prudent decision for making sure you have enough money in retirement. But yes, Sandy, that does make for interesting stories, sad ones often. So I want to ask another core question about annuities, an added twist with annuities that makes them different from comparable investments, like a certificate of deposit or a bond, the other things we've been talking about, is that with an annuity, you can name a beneficiary like a spouse, and they can, depending on how you set things up, recoup some of the money when you die.

Catherine Siskos: Yes, that's true. That's exactly how it works, except that whenever you do that, you are probably going to accept reduced income for yourself in exchange for that because then the annuity payments continue for the beneficiary's life. You can also not just do a beneficiary, but you can also have somebody who is on the annuity contract with you. So there's two ways really that you can have this. You can either set up a contract where it covers you and your wife, for example, and then when you die, the payments continue until your wife passes away, or you can set it up where you have a beneficiary and that beneficiary can take on those payments after you die. But either way, whenever that happens, the payment that you're going to receive is going to be smaller because you're getting this additional benefit.

David Muhlbaum: Right. Well, which raises the question. Clearly, you can slice annuities a whole bunch of different ways. Is doing that in the individual investor's interest, or should they be trying to, as much as possible, keep things simple?

Sandy Block: Within immediate annuities, there are all kinds of riders that you can attach such as one that you know will adjust it for inflation. As Catherine said, you can have beneficiaries or things like that. We like things simple. And even more importantly, there are types of annuities that get way more complex than what we're talking about, that invest in a portion of the stock market, that have all kinds of, and oftentimes these aren't necessarily targeted towards people who just want to get a monthly check for the rest of their lives. They want to invest in the stock market, but they want to limit how much they can lose. Annuities can do all kinds of things. They're often sold as indexed to certain stock market indexes. Catherine and I agree on this: That's when things can get really complicated. Oftentimes these variable or indexed annuities have surrender charges. If you decide to get out of the contract for a certain amount of time, as I said, they can be very complex. They can have a lot of fees. And oftentimes, the returns you think you're going to get don't necessarily pan out.

Sandy Block: Now, I recently did write an article about some new types of indexed annuities that some fee-only planners are taking an interest in and are recommending for some of their clients. But I do think that people have to be very careful with some of these products because of the complexity, because of the cost. And again, because of the penalties for trying to back out of a contract.

David Muhlbaum: Okay. Yes, yes. The penalties for backing out, getting your money back or out is one of those things that varies by the type of annuity, right? But let's check in on the immediate annuities that we said we were going to try to stick to. In those cases, it's really hard, right? Because the whole premise is: I give you a big chunk of my money, you being the insurance company, and you give me a monthly payment until I die, or maybe after—but no backsies.

Sandy Block: Yes. Right at the beginning of this podcast, we were talking about immediate annuities, where it's a contract where you give an insurance company a lump sum and they give you a monthly payment for the rest of your life. For these, it is very hard to get your money back, if at all, which is why a lot of people are uncomfortable with them. Sometimes there will be provisions or writers that will let you take some money out for emergencies, or you can say you only want payments for a certain period of time, and then maybe get some money back, but basically, you are giving up control of the money in exchange for a monthly check.

David Muhlbaum: All right. So let's say someone's made their peace with giving up some control. They've done a good job saving for retirement, listened to sound Kiplinger advice about investing in low-fee mutual funds, all that good stuff. But now, okay, they realize that an annuity could be a hedge of its own, guaranteed income for down the road. Maybe, even, for when they're so far down the road that they won't want—or be able to—manage their investments so closely. Am I selling this annuity right? In all seriousness though, where and how should people go about purchasing an annuity? Catherine?

Catherine Siskos: Well, probably the simplest answer to that question is to buy an annuity from someone who doesn't have a stake in selling you one, which is hard to do, but it's helpful to get maybe the insight of a financial planner.

David Muhlbaum: Someone who is a fiduciary.

Catherine Siskos: Someone who's a fiduciary. Exactly.

Sandy Block: And actually, as I mentioned here, fee-only planners are increasingly recommending some of these products. If they're not getting paid a commission to recommend a product, then that's kind of a good sign that they're not necessarily looking for one that is the most profitable for them, and might be the most profitable for you. And certainly, if you're working with a certified financial planner, they are required to act as a fiduciary. So I think in that case, maybe the advice would be pretty unbiased in terms of selecting one that's right for you.

David Muhlbaum: Well, we have definitely learned that annuities can be complicated. We hope we've discussed them in a relatively simple way. We are going to include a number of links that will help you sort out the different types and terms and language that we've used here today. Catherine, thank you very much for joining us, Sandy, of course.

And that will just about do it for this episode of Your Money's Worth. If you like what you heard, please sign up for more at Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your content. When you do, please give us a rating and a review. If you've already subscribed, thanks. Please go back and add a rating or review if you haven't already. It matters. To see the links we've mentioned in our show, along with other great Kiplinger content on the topics we've discussed, go to kiplinger.com/podcast. The episodes, transcripts, and links are all in there by date. And if you're still here because you wanted to give us a piece of your mind, you can stay connected with us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or by emailing us directly at podcast@kiplinger.com. Thanks for listening.

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Sandra Block
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.